Monday, January 14, 2013
What I Look for in a Graphic Novel Story
There are a few comics writing references, but most of them just skim the surface. The other comics how-to books spend more pages on the art and visual storytelling. Understandably so, because comics is a visual medium after all. However, without a sound knowledge in story development, that part that comes before scriptwriting and visual interpretation, aspiring comics writers may find themselves building derivative stories, or another version of a comics story/novel/movie they've encountered before.
Stories are like signatures. They are personal expressions of a writer put on paper. In an effort to create stories they feel an audience wants to read, beginning comics writers ditch the personal aspect of story creation in favor of what's cool and hip, witty and concept-driven, rad and current. The problem with sticking to the cool factor is its temporary nature. What's cool now may not be cool tomorrow. The work becomes dated, hollow, and "retro" before its time.
Adding a personal aspect is mostly important for beginning comics writers, because they don't have the benefit of a fanbase. Starting out, they need to find their audience, and it's almost impossible to find an audience with something that's mostly for show. It's like trying to build a friendship through flashy clothes, name-dropping and the newest gadget. These accroutrements may create initial interest, especially if the style is quirky and particularly novel, but over time people would need to know the person behind the decoration.
To give a cool story its timelessness, comics writers need to bring in a personal dimension, those universal qualities and values that don't have a shelf life. These personal dimensions do not automatically translate to serious, dramatic stories, because even the most comedic or action-packed stories would have strong personal dimensions to them. The basic principle is the well-known "art imitates life." We must learn to observe life, its idiosyncracies, complexities and nuances, run them through the filters of our personal experience, enhance them with our imagination, and express them in a way no other writer can. It's possible, because each writer is unique, and can interpret life in his or her own way.
For me, screenwriting expert Robert McKee said it best. On one end of the spectrum are the stories that talk about the Truths of life. On the other end, the stories that are wholly Entertainment-driven. Great writers fall in the middle of this spectrum. They understand that stories need to be entertaining so that audiences can be engaged and enthralled, but also understand that stories reveal truths about our existence and give entertainment its purpose. To me, some of the graphic novels that I like that fall in the middle of this spectrum are V for Vendetta (Alan Moore), The Arrival (Shawn Tan), Ministry of Science (Warren Ellis), The Escapists (Brian K. Vaughan), and Superior (Mark Millar).
I think its really important for beginning graphic novelists to learn the rudiments of story development, because competition is really tight. With comics sales not as impressive as they used to be, and more entertainment options coming out of the woodwork, graphic novelists need to work doubly hard to give audiences a reason to spend money. Graphic novels have a chance. They're cheaper to make, and they're more accessible to audiences because of the visual nature. But without stories that marry entertainment and meaning, the graphic novel may just end up as another trend, its status as the "new art form" inconsequential, a mere chapter in publishing history.